What I’m after isn’t flexible bodies but flexible brains. What I’m after is to restore each person to their human dignity. – Moshe Feldenkrais
Many people who do individual work with a Feldenkrais practitioner for the first time find it mysterious how such a light touch can produce such a dramatic change in how they feel.
The process can also be mysterious to many of us who train as Feldenkrais practitioners when we first begin. We are taught not to “fix” our clients or use force of any kind.
Instead, we learn how to care for another human being in a way that is radically different from most of what our cultural conditioning has taught us.
Because the approach is so counterintuitive, much of the art of the Feldenkrais practitioner is developed through “on-the-job-learning” after the training is done, in life’s classroom.
I’d like to share a story of my work with a very special client who, because of who he was and the challenges he faced, turned out to be one of my most important teachers. For all the wonderful things I learned in my training, it was my encounter with this man that really brought those lessons home for me and changed me in a way that is hard to put in words.
Ken Marlow was a phenomenally talented painter. He began art lessons at age 12 and within 6 months was teaching adults.
In 1986, Ken’s nude self-portrait oil – which could almost be mistaken for a photograph – won the National Art Competition at New York City’s Grand Central Art Galleries, sponsored by American Artist magazine. He won the $4,000 prize over more than 6,000 entries from around the country. This was just one highlight in an incredible career.
Ken spent the last 8 years of his life in bed after suffering two strokes. The left side of his body was paralyzed and he could not eat or speak. I first started working with Ken in 2017, along with a colleague, Yulia Kriskovets. I continued to work with him until his death in October 2023.
In the beginning, Ken’s friends and family, who raised the money to pay for our work, hoped that Yulia and I would help Ken to paint again and possibly to speak. We had many exciting and hopeful moments with Ken, but sadly, this never came to pass.
I often wondered what would have been possible if Ken had been able to have in-home care and get all the attention he needed. Unfortunately, Ken just got the “standard” kind of care you get in the United States when you can’t pay through the nose.
He lived in a “rehabilitation center” where he was always housed in the same room with two other men. A curtain separated them, but the sound of three different televisions always filled the air. Countless times, Ken complained to me that he couldn’t sleep because the others watched TV at night or would be crying out for a nurse.
Arriving to visit Ken, I was often outraged at the disarray of his surroundings and the haphazard way that the pillows and blankets on his bed were arranged, making it impossible for him to lie comfortably. He hated being taken for showers because of the way he was handled. I couldn’t imagine what he went through day after day.
Although I never knew Ken before his strokes and his only communication with me was with pen and paper, I was able to experience his deep care and creativity.
During some of our visits, he would request a song that I would find on my phone and play for him. He would write out a memory related to the song in his notebook. It took him a long time to write these messages and often I couldn’t interpret his handwriting and had to ask him to please try again.
Usually, he would simply write “back” or “neck” to indicate where he was uncomfortable and wanted more attention.
I used gentle touch to help him relieve some of the discomforts of being perpetually bedridden, but just as often I helped by relaying messages to the nurses that he couldn’t deliver himself.
Whenever I did something that allowed him to experience relief, he would immediately give me an excited look and a thumbs up. So whatever it was, I would keep doing that!
But some days, his pain was too severe for me to relieve. He suffered from bed sores, an infection in one of his feet and other indignities that can not be addressed by the strategies of the Feldenkrais Method.
Because of his handicap and inability to speak, working with Ken was, at times, quite challenging. At a certain point, I realized he wouldn’t improve. My role was simply to provide comfort.
Over time, I learned to be less and less concerned with technique and more and more focused on my overall communication with Ken through the touch of my hands. Sometimes I would chant a loving kindness mantra in my head or imagine beaming love into his body directly from my heart.
Ken taught me things I never knew about my own soul. It was a deep learning.
I felt most satisfied with my work on the days when he would fall asleep. When he did I would sit and watch him, savoring these moments of peaceful rest that seemed so few and far between.
Some days, the most I could do was just acknowledge that I saw what he was going through. I would often say to him, “Ken, I’m sorry you feel so uncomfortable.”
On one occasion, a few months before his death, he wrote in his notebook, “You are an angel.”
I told him, “So are you!”
Indeed, Ken was always asking me about my daughter or requesting that I show him photos of Yulia’s children. He often received gifts that he couldn’t use which he then gave to me.
One thing that was particularly difficult for Ken was turning his head to the left so we often worked on that movement together. Over the years, I must have said to him hundreds of times, “Look at the peaches” – because one of his still lifes, a portrait of a barrel of peaches, was hung on the wall to his left. There was also a still life of a vase with flowers in full bloom.
Once Ken wrote in his notebook, “Do you want to know what those paintings are about?”
When I nodded, he wrote, “The peaches are about containment. The flowers are about the escape to freedom.”
I knew Ken was close to the end, but after each visit, I always assumed I’d see him again a few days later. There were no poignant final words. The last thing I said to him was:
“I’ll see you on Monday.”
But I never did.
Rest in peace, Ken.
Seth Dellinger is a multi-faceted teacher of the healing arts whose greatest joy is to hold space for the transformation of people who have made the conscious decision to cultivate their potential for contributing to the wellbeing of humanity. He is the creator of the 16-week Grounded Connection program for creative entrepreneurs and professionals seeking to liberate themselves from chronic discomfort, disconnection and burnout which combines somatic, meditative and dialogical self inquiry along with weekly live online community practice sessions.
His website is sethdellinger.com